Staying Aware of Emotions

Article submitted by Amy Sargent-Kossoff

Do you notice your emotions before they erupt into hurtful behaviors? This skill may sound like a quality only reserved for the emotional elite — empaths or those with an extremely high EQ. But you may be surprised to learn that anyone can develop this competency of emotional intelligence.

We all like to think we are self-aware. In her book, Insight, organizational psychologist Tasha Eurich, from a series of surveys, found that 95% of people think they’re self-aware, but only 10-15% actually are. Do you fall into the 95% or the 10-15%? That’s kind of a trick question, because, based upon her research, if you think you’re in the 10-15%, there’s a 95% chance you’re not!

Emotional self-awareness is the ability to notice and label your feelings, in the moment, and to be able to connect them to the why. Try it, right now. What are you feeling? Can you name it specifically? For example, you may feel angry, but notice if it is truly anger, or something else. Maybe it could be more accurately described as irritation, disappointment, or disillusionment. Once you land on a specific word, then try to connect it to the why. Why are you feeling what you’re feeling? Is it because of a conversation which just took place? Or were you recalling a negative memory? Or did you just see something you didn’t like on the news? Those who are strong in emotional self-awareness are able to tune into these feelings, name them accurately, connect them to their cause, then use these feelings and emotions as a valuable source of insight.

Learning to hide

So many of us at a young age were taught to hide our emotions, or pretend we were not feeling them. “Wipe that look off your face”, was a common instruction in our household. Another familiar phrase we often heard was, “Are you really crying about that?”, as if feeling sad was not OK. We quickly learned that if we could conceal our emotions, then we might not get in trouble…and not getting in trouble seemed like a good thing!

“To tell someone not to be emotional is to tell them to be dead.”
― Jeanette Winterson, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? 

As a result, we learned the misnomer that certain emotions were not acceptable, and better left hidden away in the dark. Such is how many of us embarked on a lifetime of tuning out and discrediting emotions, either by ignoring them or bottling them up inside.

“But feelings can’t be ignored, no matter how unjust or ungrateful they seem.”
― Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl

In contrast, someone who is emotionally self-aware tunes into feelings, listens to them, and allows them to guide their actions.

Labeling Emotions

Another common misstep is that we have learned to sort our emotions into two categories — good or bad, or, more commonly, positive or negative. And you’ve probably learned that those ones labeled as negative are to be avoided at all costs. Think about some of them — disappointment, frustration, jealousy, anger, annoyance, to name a few. I don’t know anyone who enjoys experiencing these emotions. Do you? They are unpleasant and feel, well, awful. So we do whatever we can do to never feel them. However, if you’re human, you probably realize that it is impossible to always avoid negative events (and the unpleasant emotions which result). And all emotions to provide the vital insights which can guide your next steps.

“Your emotions make you human. Even the unpleasant ones have a purpose. Don’t lock them away. If you ignore them, they just get louder and angrier.”
― Sabaa Tahir, A Torch Against the Night 

And though in the moment it may seem helpful to divert the conflict which results from unpleasant emotions, avoiding them does nothing for your emotional self-awareness. On the contrary, blocking out certain emotions prevents us from experiencing the full gamut of emotions which is normal for humans. For example, if you have never experienced sadness from loss, how can you fully experience the joy which comes from gain, if you have nothing to compare it to?

All emotions are acceptable — even if you don’t enjoy them. And all emotions have something to say — if you choose to listen to them.

The 10-15%

People who are strong in emotional self-awareness recognize all emotions are helpful, not just the ‘positive’ ones. And they take it a step further. They recognize the connection between the emotions they feel and the thoughts they think. Reflect on the last time you felt ‘heated’ emotions…a time when your buttons were pushed. Did you think about the situation at all after the incident? If you’re like me, you most likely ruminated on it for hours to come, rehashing the situation over and over and over!

Something to note — from your thoughts come behaviors.

Those strong in emotional self-awareness also notice how feelings have an impact on things like job performance and health of relationships. They are able to articulate what they are feeling and express them in a way which builds relationships, not tears them down. And best of all — they have learned to recognize the physical symptoms — how the emotion shows up in their body — before the emotion hits.

What is your body telling you?

Learning to listen to your body is a great way to build emotional self-awareness. For most of us, our body signals us to the emotion before it erupts. For example, think about the last time you felt, say, really stressed. What did that feel like in your body? Some people experience a dry mouth. Others begin to sweat profusely, or their face flushes. Some report they can feel their heart beating rapidly. Others get a sick pit in their stomach, or feel weak in the legs, or their hands begin to shake. What do you feel when you experience stress?

“Among my stillness was a pounding heart.”
― Shannon A. Thompson, Seconds Before Sunrise

Recognizing the bodily symptoms of strong emotions can serve as an early warning system, before the emotion erupts, that something is starting to happen which may not end well if we don’t manage our next steps. Learning to notice these physical symptoms can help us prepare for the action we want to take, rather than being a victim of reaction.

If you Struggle with Emotional Self-Awareness

Still not sure if you’re strong in emotional self-awareness or not? Note these indicators of a need for growth in this emotional intelligence competency:

  • You get irritated, frustrated or angry easily, and treat people in an abrasive way when you do.
  • Your hot emotions cause headaches, lower back pain, neck or shoulder pain, heart racing, sweaty palms, anxiety attacks or other signals, yet you do not heed nor pay attention to them.
  • Your day-to-day actions and behaviors are not in alignment with your personal goals and values.
  • You often feel out of balance in terms of you work life, health and family.
  • You think you’re a terrific leader when in reality, no one seems to like working for you. Maybe some of your key players have recently quit or a friend/family member does not want to be around you.
  • Your actions are hurtful to others, yet you don’t notice their pain, or even worse, blame them for it.
Growing in emotional self-awareness

What I love about emotional intelligence is that it can be developed. You don’t have to stay stuck in behaviors which aren’t working. It’s not like personality, or your genetic makeup, which is pretty much set at a young age. Emotional intelligence is about noticing emotions, in the moment, then choosing to act (instead of react) in a way that builds up instead of tears down. Even if you’re not very good at this today, you can try some exercises to build a new muscle — your emotional self-awareness muscle — and after practice, begin to make a shift in your behaviors. How?

7 Steps toward Greater Emotional Self-Awareness

Here are seven ways to begin to improve your emotional self-awareness:

1-Make a habit of checking in on your feelings. Throughout the day, take a moment to notice what you are feeling, and why. Name the emotion specifically and accurately if possible.

2-Take notice of your bodily signals such as sweating, headaches, clenched teeth, tense shoulders, etc. and try to connect them to the why. Ask yourself, what is my body trying to tell me? Is it dread? Is it angst? Is it worry? Note which feelings are connected to which body signals.

3-Allow for quiet time each day. Use this time to be introspective, to listen to that often-quiet inner voice and what it’s trying to say. Do you need to take a break? Do you need to speed things up? Do you need to switch gears? Do you need to go talk to someone? Listen and respond.

4-Practice the pause. When you feel a particular ‘hot’ emotion (one which, maybe in the past, has led to behaviors which got you into trouble), learn to pause. Take a breath, or two, or three. Take a walk. Get some fresh air. Call a friend. Write in your journal. Slow down the time it takes for the signal which caused that hot emotion to move from the amygdala, the part of your brain which spurs you to fight or flight, to the cortex, where you can process and react reasonably.

5-Gather feedback. Ask those closest to you, friends, family members, or colleagues, how you come across in heated moments. Have colleagues watch you in a meeting and let you know how your emotions were presenting themselves. The honest reflection of others, especially those you can trust, can provide great insight into blind spots, something we all have.

6-Get in the habit of feeling the feels. If you’re someone who has a habit of blocking out emotions, it’s time to step into the brave new world of letting yourself feel them. This can be unpleasant at times. That’s OK. Remember, all emotions are acceptable and are trying to tell you something. Think of them as that one dear friend who actually will speak the truth.

7-Notice how your emotions lead to your thoughts, and your thoughts to lead to your behaviors. Recognizing the link between emotions and your actions is a great way to begin to make shifts in behaviors which are not serving you and others well.

“How you react emotionally is a choice in any situation.”
― Judith Orloff

Remember, while all emotions are acceptable, all behaviors are not. Once we start noticing our emotions, even as they start to erupt, we are then empowered to choose our thoughts and behaviors which follow. Comedian Craig Ferguson offered these sage questions to help filter next steps:

  • Does this need to be said/done?
  • Does this need to be said/done by me?
  • Does this need to be said/done by me right now?

As with all new habits, developing this competency will take practice. Instead of shooting for perfection, try becoming a little more emotionally self-aware each day. And when you miss (which you will, because you are human), be quick to forgive yourself, without shame, so you can get back to moving along again down this new path.

“Feel, he told himself, feel, feel, feel. Even if what you feel is pain, only let yourself feel.”
― P.D. James, The Children of Men 

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